Accessible features such as step free access, ground floor toilets and handrails on stairs are set to become mandatory in new homes and apartments throughout Australia after state and Commonwealth building ministers agreed to implement mandatory accessible housing measures in the National Construction Code (NCC).

At the Building Ministers Forum (BMF) meeting on Friday, a ‘majority’ of ministers agreed to include minimum accessibility provisions for residential housing and apartments in the 2022 edition of the NCC.

The provisions will be based on the Silver standards outlined in the Liveable Housing Design Guidelines (LHDG) which are published by Liveable Housing Australia (LHA).

This will mean that new homes built under NCC 2022 or later will need to have:

  • Step-free access from street and parking areas
  • at least one step-free entrance into the dwelling
  • internal doors and corridors that facilitate easy access
  • a ground floor toilet
  • a step-free shower
  • reinforced bathroom walls to support grabrail installation; and
  • a continuous handrail on stairs.

The latest developments follow several years of debate about whether accessible housing standards should be included in the NCC.

For some time, there has been concern about a lack of homes being constructed with important accessibility features.

A 2010 RIS commissioned by the Victorian Department of Planning and Community Development (DPCD) on a proposal to include accessibility standards in the Victorian Appendix to what was then known as the Building Code of Australia (now the NCC), for instance, found that 96 percent of new homes built in Victoria lacked important visibility and adaptability features.

A 2014 estimate from Liveable Housing Australia indicated that less than five percent of new homes meet the standard of its ‘silver’ level certification under its Liveable Housing Design Guidelines – the most basic level of certification which can be achieved under the guidelines.

In response, ministers decided in 2017 to examine the benefits and costs of including mandatory accessible housing features in the NCC based on the LHD guidelines.

Developed and maintained by LHA, these guidelines aim to provide homes that are easy and safe to use for all occupants. This includes people with a disability, the aged, people with temporary injuries and families with young children.

Three levels of certification are achievable under the guidelines.

To achieve a Silver certification, new homes and apartments need to deliver the basic features referred to above.

To achieve Gold or Platinum, additional features are required in areas such as kitchens, bedrooms, living rooms and flooring.

As part of the consultations, options considered included mandatory requirements based on the Silver standards along with options for incorporating features required for the Gold standard.

Nevertheless, there had been concern that benefits associated with the various options may have been outweighed by the costs involved

Last year, a Consultation Regulatory Impact Statement issued by the Australian Building Codes Board found that cost associated with mandatory inclusion of accessibility requirements with the NCC outweighed the anticipated benefits for all options which were considered.

Nevertheless, the BMF decided that inclusion of requirements based on a Silver standard would help to address housing needs of vulnerable Australians notwithstanding the costs involved.

In its communique issued after the meeting, the BMF indicated that a ‘majority’ of ministers supported this.

Whilst the communique did not indicate which states had supported the measures, states such as Queensland and Victoria had expressed their public support for the moves.

“A majority of Ministers today agreed to include minimum accessibility provisions for residential housing and apartments in the National Construction Code (NCC) 2022 based on the Liveable Housing Design Guidelines (LHDG) silver standards,” the communique read.

“In agreeing to implement a regulatory solution, Ministers took into consideration the feedback from industry, advocates and the lived experience of members of the community affected by the lack of accessible housing. They also considered the findings of the Decision Regulation Impact Statement (RIS) prepared by the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB).

“The decision taken by a majority of Ministers acknowledges the costs identified in the Decision RIS but reflects their assessment that a regulatory solution will result in significant and lasting benefit to Australians who need access to homes with accessible features.”

The ministers also agreed the ABCB will publish a voluntary gold technical standard for accessible housing.

In light of potential cost impacts at a time when the building industry continues to adjust to the economic effects of COVID-19, each state and territory will determine whether and how the new provisions will be applied within their jurisdiction.

Ministers have also asked that senior building officials work with the ABCB to provide advice to support implementation of the new requirement. This will include any exclusions as well as appropriate transition timeframes.

“This outcome supports the states and territories with their responsibilities to increase the stock of accessible housing and provides flexibility for jurisdictions to implement in a way that best meets the needs of their communities,” the communique read.

Queensland Minister for Public Works and Procurement Mick de Brenni welcomed the move.

De Brenni said a minimum accessibility standard would ensure safe, secure and liveable housing especially for seniors, with significant growth expected in the number of Australians remaining in their homes as they age.

“Housing should be designed to accommodate all people, regardless of their age or disability,” he said.

“From young families with children to those with a temporary injury or permanent disability as well as the elderly, these reforms will benefit everyone.

“Finding a suitable rental home or home to purchase can be incredibly challenging for the 3.8 million seniors and the 4.4 million Australians with a mobility-related disability.

“The relatively simple and cost-effective fit out of homes with accessibility features would also mean the elderly can stay in their homes longer, enabling full and continued participation in life, like work, volunteering and family interactions.

“Seniors deserve to remain active and engaged, with strong connections to family and community, and a safe and secure home can help them age with dignity.”

The latest moves come as the public comment draft for NCC 2022 is set to be released on May 10.

The new national minimum standard for accessible housing will now be incorporated into this draft.